‘Cowardly’ Malayan town punished with ration cut and curfew
26 March 1952
On 26 March 1952, General Walter Templer, the British High Commissioner, cocooned in his staff car and escorted by motorcycle outriders, arrived at the small Malayan town of Tanjong Malim, just 43 miles north of the colonial capital of Kuala Lumpur. He immediately summoned three hundred leading members of the Malayan, Chinese and Indian communities and informed them that the entire town’s population of five thousand was to be subjected to a harsh collective punishment for an indefinite period.
Templer’s decision to punish the inhabitants followed an ambush at a rubber plantation outside the town, in which ten police officers, an engineer and the assistant district officer had been killed by communist rebels fighting to end British rule.1 The general suspected that the town’s residents were either too sympathetic towards or too afraid of the insurgents. Only three had disclosed information about communist positions or movements. Some encouragement was therefore deemed necessary and measures were taken to ensure the population was more afraid of collective punishment by the British than of any possible communist reprisal.2
According to a Reuters report, Templer explained to the community leaders that they and their fellow residents ‘were too cowardly to give information which they had about the terrorists’ and that he had therefore ordered a series of severe sanctions including
- a halving of each person’s rice ration
- the closure of all schools
- the suspension of all bus services linking the town with the outside world
- no civilian allowed to leave the town
- all shops closed for all but two hours a day
- a 22 hour curfew to be strictly enforced by troops and police.3
British newspapers praised the general’s action. Typically, the Dundee Courier declared that ‘the time for half measures in Malaya has long past’ and ‘there is ample justification, therefore, for the firm action of General Templer… in ordering the collective punishment of the town…. Benevolent sympathy with civilian difficulties can be carried too far. The time had to come when towns and villages had to be taught that if they acquiesced in terrorism (presumably including allowing themselves to be intimidated) they would not get away with it. Tanjong Malim was due such a lesson.’4
The response of the local population, according to a report in the Derry Journal, was one of total silence and ‘people in the street glowered at British officials as they left the hall after the general’s announcement.’5 Templer was not discouraged by the display of popular anger. He immediately ordered the implementation of all the measures including the cut in rice rations, despite a warning from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine that they were ‘bound to result in an increase, not only of sickness, but also of deaths, particularly among the mothers and very young children.’6
Nor did the warning of the likely devastating impact of punishing innocent civilians and children cause the British High Commissioner to hesitate extending the retaliatory sanctions against other communities, with British newspapers reporting early the following month that, according to ‘reliable sources’, ‘residents of a large area of Selangor State have been warned they will receive the same punishment as Tanjong Malim if they do not provide information on guerilla activities’ by 10 April and adding that ‘General Templer had every intention of implementing similar punishments to that inflicted on Tanjong Malim, wherever it was considered that people were not cooperating with the government by supplying information about the guerillas,’7
- Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire, Allen Lane, 2007 London p. 525, ‘Malayan Town Punished’, The Times, 28 March 1952 p. 5, ‘Tanjong Malim Punishment’, The Aberdeen Evening Express, 27 March 1952, p. 5, ‘Wooden Horse Hero Murdered,’ The Aberdeen Evening Express, 25 March 1952, p. 1, ‘Rations Cut and Curfew in Pro-Red Villages,’ The Yorkshire Post, 28 March 1952 p. 1 and ’12 Die in Malaya’s Worst Outrage’, The Belfast Telegraph, 25 March 1952, p. 1.
- ‘Malayan Town Punished,’ The Times, 28 March 1952 p. 5, ‘Tanjong Malim Punishment’, The Aberdeen Evening Express, 27 March 1952, p. 5, ‘Rations Cut and Curfew in Pro-Red Villages,’ The Yorkshire Post, 28 March 1952 p. 1 and ’22 Hour Curfew for Malay Villagers; They won’t Cooperate with British,’ the Derry Journal, 28 March 1952, p. 1.
- Ibid and ‘Templer Blockades whole Malayan Village,’ The Daily Worker, 28 March 1952, p. 1.
- ‘Fight Against Terrorism’, The Dundee Courier, 29 March 1952, p. 2.
- 22 Hour Curfew for Malay Villagers; They won’t Cooperate with British,’ the Derry Journal, 28 March 1952, p. 1.
- Simon Webb, British Concentration Camps: A Brief History from 1900 – 1975, Pen and Sword History, Barnsley, 2016, p. 143.
- ’30 Reds Held in Swoop,’ The Daily Mirror, 10 April 1952, p 3, ‘Templer’s Arrests in Red Village,’ The Portsmouth Evening News, 9 April 1952, p. 1 and ‘Templer Relaxes Curfew on Malayan Town,’ Shields Daily News, 9 April 1952, p. 1.
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